Built to Last

Built to Last

For sculptor Chris Erney, copying an angel means more than “cut” and “paste.”

When it was Chris Erney’s job to design medical appliances, he built a better blood analyzer. When he worked for Boeing, he made graphics of helicopters. When he was hired to sculpt a cherub, he made an angel.

For the last three weeks, Ernie has been working beside the Torpedo Factory’s elevator shaft to create a rubber mold of “Angel Night,” a wall-relief he donated to the Torpedo Factory’s Holiday Open House raffle. The 4-foot-long plaster angel is a “deep relief,” emerging almost completely from a background carved with clouds. Clasping a skirtful of unsown stars, she reaches out with her left hand to carefully place one in the sky.

As Erney sealed the statue’s base, so liquid rubber would not seep underneath and completely encase it, he compared the clay he was working into the cracks to child’s modeling clay.

“That’s how I started,” he said, “with little colored blocks of clay that I’d get in the Five-and-Ten.”

“I’d get yelled at for getting little pieces of clay in the rug.”

Erney speaks of his need to create three-dimensional objects with his hands the way painters talk about the urge to express themselves on canvas. But when Erney talks about his art, he never speaks of anything as amorphous as artistic inspiration. He talks about logical steps based on sketches and models: the problems they presented and his search for elegant solutions. He talks about satisfying the client.

ERNEY ATTENDED the Philadelphia College of Art and earned a degree in industrial design. “That took care of my outlet for making things with my hands for several years. But it wasn’t easy to find many industrial design jobs.” After working for a medical appliance firm and designing the blood analyzer, as well as a wheelchair that increased people’s height, Erney took a steadier job as a graphic designer for Boeing, which brought him to Northern Virginia.

His first visit to the area was discouraging. The region’s clogged roads presented the antithesis of his passion at the time: off-road rally racing. Erney was his best friend’s co-pilot. “A lot of it takes place at night and you’re going so fast. He would have to have total trust in me and I would tell him, ‘The turn is coming up hard left in three tenths of a mile,’ and I would count down and he would have to start turning when he couldn’t even see the turn.” Before Erney quit the rallies, three racers died in two years. He knew all of them, though none well.

But asked why he stopped racing, he answered, “The expense. I gave up pretty much everything to do art. I even sold my favorite car. I had nothing. That’s why I moved to a two-room apartment in Alexandria here. I gave up all that stuff and used up my 401K’s and everything to take a chance on it.”

As a graphic designer, Erney said, “I missed working with my hands and making something that would still be there if you pull the plug out.” He’d started sculpting again as a hobby, taking classes with the Torpedo Factory Art League. When he went to a foundry to cast his first bronze, the owner was impressed with his work and helped him get a commission. That gave him the encouragement he needed to make the leap to full-time artist.

IN 2003, A COUPLE in McLean approached Erney. They wanted a twelve-foot long, tripartite sculpture to hang on the wall of their living room. They knew they wanted a myth, or at least a story they could think about when they admired it from their couch. They suggested cherubs, but Erney couldn’t find a good story about Cherubs. He came back to them with the Greek’s allegory for night, which they imagined as a woman.

On the second night of Erney’s sojourn in the Torpedo Factory’s elevator well, he tells an onlooker that he originally envisioned Night simply dumping stars from a sack into the sky. By sketching and making a naked model, then clothing her, Erney took steps towards the graceful economy of his current piece: one arm extended, her gaze intent upon a single star. Inspired by paintings of women sowing in the field, Erney had his angel gather her supply of stars in her lap. “I thought that was a simple solution, because I didn’t have to add another element, like a special ‘star bag.’”

At each step, he confirmed the idea with his clients. They agreed on the precise number of stars she would carry. They asked for birds. He gave them a pair of owls. The statue took up nearly the length of one wall in his two-room apartment. “It was the last thing I saw when I turned my lights off and the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes every day for a year.”

But when he finished the commission and installed, Erney felt that his own vision had been subsumed too much. He went back to the plaster test-casting that he’d kept. He simplified the background and altered the angel with a hammer and chisel.

Working with plaster as hard as limestone, he said, is the opposite of working with clay, which is a process of accretion, one small element at a time pressed into the surface and shaped with the fingers. “It’s a different way of thinking because you’re removing away the material instead of adding material. So you really have to make it backwards. It’s very much slower and you can’t change your mind. Because once you carve something off its not there anymore.”

AFTER SIMPLIFYING the background and smoothing the flow of the angel’s robe and hair, Erney was ready to make a casting of her. Last Thursday, he and Matt Harwood, the Torpedo Factory artist whose raffle ticket won him the first casting of the statue, worth $6,000, took the most dramatic steps in making the rubber mold from which Erney will cast new plaster clones of the statue.

Erney poured buckets of bright yellow polyurethane rubber across the unblemished features of the angel. It trickled down her face, and pooled around her body. Harwood and Erney used paint brushes to fill every crevice with a coating of rubber, the first of five or six increasingly thick coats that will eventually form a thick mold that Erney will carefully peel from the statue, particularly at the deepest and most delicate point: the angel’s upraised wrist and her small, curled fingers.

Visitors to the Torpedo Factory’s Second Thursday event trickled into the room and watched the process unfold. “Is it a fairy?” asked Adam Shakur, 11, mesmerized by the bright yellow rubber on the white plaster. “I’d put one up in my room.”

“When night comes, she puts up the stars,” explained Harwood.

“Is that why she’s yellow?” asked Shakur’s friend, Javonta Thaxton.

They were on a mission of “looking around and finding stuff that’s cool,” according to a third friend, Taiwan Fillis. Asked to for an example, he raised his arm, “I seen a dog that was huge. It was this high.”

But the vision of two men publicly transforming a modest angel into a neon sign was stiff competition for even the largest of dogs. After ten or fifteen minutes, Shakur sensed his friends’ interest waning. Why do you rush to leave?” he said. “I want to see this.”